The Effect of Tragedy on Journalists

College is already pretty stressful, and journalism culture is not exactly relaxed, either. The psychological strain of trying to do justice to a newsworthy story, while also respecting the suffering of members of your own academic community, while also suffering as a member of that community, is no picnic.

The stereotype of the hard-hitting journalist is someone who chases ambulances and sticks cameras and microphones in the faces of traumatized people. The journalist’s professional obligation to remain unbiased requires some level of detachment, but as healthy human beings we all have the urge to empathize.

Several of my top journalism students have been working overtime to cover the Lacrosse team bus accident.

Here are sobering words from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma:

“Reporters, photojournalists, engineers, soundmen and field producers often work elbow to elbow with emergency workers. Journalists’ symptoms of traumatic stress are remarkably similar to those of police officers and firefighters who work in the immediate aftermath of tragedy, yet journalists typically receive little support after they file their stories. While public-safety workers are offered debriefings and counseling after a trauma, journalists are merely assigned another story.”

Here are some resources I’ve found helpful.

Events surrounding September 11 have pushed many media professionals into probing a shadowy area–the delicate balance that pits humanness and emotional vulnerability against professional instincts to get the story. Perhaps more than at any other time, talk about emotional fatigue, post-traumatic stress syndrome and critical incident response has become part of newsroom vocabulary. The message from mental health advocates is clear: Those who seek counseling should not be exiled as wimps. —After the Adrenaline — American Journalism Review.

Develop a support system. Pay attention to signs of stress. Balance colliding worlds. Document your experiences. Keep your own well-being top of mind. —5 Ways Journalists Can Mitigate Stress on the Job — Pointer

[On the “death knock” story — interviewing a family about their bereaving.]  [R]eporters were more negative about encounters with the bereaved than the families interviewed… “Most families feel they should have a voice in their story – it is their story… Issues of intrusion arose. Issues of accuracy arose all the time.  Issues of exclusion arose where people would go away and write a whole story and not speak to them about their son or daughter.” –Jackie Newton, quoted in A Journalist Calls: Reporting Death in a post-Leveson Climate

Reporters, editors, photojournalists and news crews are involved in the coverage of many tragedies during their lifetimes. They range from wars to terrorist attacks to airplane crashes to natural disasters to fire to murders. All having victims. All affecting their communities. All creating lasting memories. —Tragedies & Journalists: a guide for more effective coverage (PDF)

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